Rabbi Dr. David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a pioneering scholar of rabbinic literature and a committed Orthodox Jew, did not shy away from applying academic methods to the study of rabbinic texts. His work on the Mishnah posits an early, uniform, undisputed, and therefore authoritative collection of the Oral Law which he called the First Mishnah. In the intervening years new critical methods and approaches have contributed even more convincing insights into the sources, growth, and history of “our” Mishnah. Nevertheless, Hoffman remains an intellectual father of contemporary rabbinic scholarship.
The most important early source for the history of the development of rabbinic literature is the Epistle (Iggeret) of R. Sherira Gaon. What prompted him to write this history? What periods does it cover, and what were his sources? Was he really the “father of the modern critical historical” study of rabbinic literature as many claim, or was he a creative traditionalist narrator defending the authority of the rabbinic tradition?
The apparent goal of tractate Sotah is to delineate the biblical ritual of the suspected adulteress. While the text indeed largely follows the order laid out in the book of Numbers, a careful examination reveals that the rabbinic ritual has been dramatically changed from an individual, priestly process undertaken before God, to a public, largely rabbinic spectacle performed before a live audience.
The main source in rabbinic literature for Rosh Hashanah serving as a day of judgment is a mishnah that describes this holiday and the three pilgrimage festivals as “periods of judgment.” By comparing this Mishnah with teachings attributed to R. Akiva, we can trace how this idea evolved in the tannaitic period and how this mishnah reshapes it.